Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Ave Atque Tee Hee

You like to think of yourself among other things as a clearing house for ideas. In this clearing-house-atmosphere, the useful ideas ideas are shunted off to a processing center, the metaphysical equivalent of the 24/7 you who, even in his sleep, processes useful ideas while discarding those of a patently awful or even merely questionable nature.

There is a special place in this clearing house of ideas, a place in metaphor every bit as notional and undisciplined as your desk or, for that matter, sub-set desk Number One, which is the kitchen table, and sub-set desk Number Two, which is the entire back storage compartment of your Prius, for pending ideas, matters that have caused you great leaps of interest and even joy, but, as yet, no resolution.

This is attitudinal background to your recent awareness that most men and some women, eulogized in New York Times obituaries, are said to have had senses of humor, almost as though one who did not have a sense of humor, or who was represented instead as a person of, say, principal, or honor, might find difficulty being included within the obituary pages.

Even more to the point, you recently read the obituary of an individual you knew, one who had walked the rainbow bridge in the past week or so. Not to put too fine a point on the matter, but you saw this individual more as stubborn, a control freak, bordering on the intransigent. Nevertheless, there he was, hailed in his eulogy as a person of great humor.

One corpse does not make a Friars' Roast anymore than one robin makes a spring. In fairness, you have in any number of occasions failed to see the inherent humor of an event and have been singled out for concerns that you indeed tend to find humor in places where there is none.

In a course of thought that brings you certain discomfort, you've noted how the more physical aspects of humor, which is to say comedy, achieve their effect by giving us a victim we can laugh at, relieved we are not the victim. 

Most deaths sadden you, John Donne and the bell tolling for thee and so on; you're sorry to see the departed depart, change form, recycle. Some deaths produce in you a sense of schadenfreude, which is in effect a satellite in orbit about a sun, a sense of justice of some sort having been done in some sort of way.

Now, you find yourself fretting over the conundrum of how some individuals, merely by virtue of death, are invested with a sense of humor when, in life, they may might have had no such asset.  No mistaking the fact for you, humor is an asset. While you're on the subject, death isn't.

The wheels are set in motion for you to ponder their rotation. 

Monday, January 2, 2017


At one point in your career, you ran the Los Angeles office of a major massmarket publisher that happened among other things to be the reprint publisher of the iconic storyteller, Elmore Leonard. Thus, when he saw your face among the blur of strangers at a yearly event once called The American Bookseller's Association Convention, there was more than mere recognition. You'd become a life preserver. "Do you think you could find me some coffee?" he said.

What followed was a conversation that apparently stuck with us both because within it, you'd expressed admiration for a character of his named Ernest "Stick" Sticky, Jr., to which Leonard made the observation, "Coincidental you mention that. He's been speaking a lot to me lately and I'm thinking he wants his own book."

Cut to the future, when you were no longer in favor with the major massmarket publisher and were pursuing, as it is often said, other options. Some of these options, writing short stories (which had been your default plan for being happy and making a living), for instance, had been influenced in no small measure by that conversation with Leonard. Indeed, you began forthwith to spend time listening to your characters, in consequence of which you'd begun to place the kinds of stories you'd always believed you had it within you to write. In particular, you'd had one editor, John Milton of the estimable South Dakota Review, telling you "I guess you're one of my regulars now."

Somewhere within that future, your cherished friend, Barnaby Conrad, had encountered Leonard as a friend, in further consequence of which, Leonard would on occasion come to Santa Barbara to appear as a speaker at Conrad's glorious toy, the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference, where you were able to have a continuation of the conversation about Ernest Sticky, Jr., who, indeed, had "talked" his way into his own book, Stick.

Perhaps because Leonard knew you'd also followed his Western stories, he began telling you of another instance in which he sought an appropriate name for a jailer in one of his Western stories, found nothing that satisfied him, then had significant problems wringing convincing dialogue from the character. Leonard went on to tell of having gone through a contemporary newspaper account, originally published in a newspaper from the Arizona Territory (which would have dated the story back at least as far as 1912, whence Arizona achieved statehood.

The story gave a quote from a prison guard named Bob Isham, on which Leonard pounced. That became the name for his character. "And you know something," Leonard said, "I couldn't keep the garrulous old son of a bitch quiet after that."

In significant measure accurate in details, the previous paragraphs become an adjective your literary agent made you swear you would not use in any copy you submitted to her. The adjective was prologaminous, or, "somehow related to the prologues of fiction and dramatic nonfiction."

The previous paragraphs came rushing back to you as you recall your recent encounter with a typographical error you were correcting on a manuscript you'd begun as a procrastination from a project you've been working on, need to finish, and realize, from a review of the last page, that a bit of the lackluster had set in. Writing things that intrigue and delight you are sure ways to energize your writing persona to the point where, once again, you are not sure which (as opposed to what) mischiefs will come pouring forth.  Memo to self: Always write as though about to allow a mischief to slip through the cracks. Saner persons than you will rush to strike them out, but even then your prose will have that level of impudence you favor.

In repairing the typographical error on your procrastination project, you somehow caused your protagonist to become not only himself--Benjamin C. Bloom--but Benjamin C. Bloom, Jr, which meant he had a father whom you'd not previously considered and now must.  Since you knew, thanks to your quirky memory, of an actual individual with the name Benjamin and the middle initial C. (a former Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Benjamin Cardozo), it made sense for your fictional Benjamin C. Bloom to be an attorney and a professor of law.

On such trivialities is fiction shunted into life.  Suppose, you told yourself, that your fictional Benjamin Cardozo Bloom had actually been born Benjamin M. (for Maurice) Bloom, but had furtively changed the M. to a C. That one little typographical counterfeit could have an enormous effect on generations to come.

Indeed.  And what's so special about M-for-Maurice?  Couldn't  hurt to have a smattering of knowledge of U.S. theatrical history in which one of the great stalwarts of that institution had the same effect on history as Benjamin Cardozo had on American jurisprudence.  Of course you knew all about Maurice Barrymore, sire of the great Barrymore acting family.

As Elmore Leonard said of Bob Isham...

You are well into one hundred pages of the procrastination, haunted by the sounds of its characters, wailing and moaning at you as you attempt to tread the warp and weft of your daily Reality.

Sunday, January 1, 2017


For the same reason we understand that characters in novels, short stories, plays, and all filmed drama are not real persons, we accept the fact that what these characters say is dialogue rather than conversation. 

The price of entry in both cases--acceptance of a character and what the character says--is, as Samuel T. Coleridge put it, "The willing suspension of disbelief."  

In other words, our relationship with characters is either empathetic or suspicious. Whether we continue to turn pages or, if watching a TV drama, keep our hands off the channel tuner, depends on the degree of empathy between us and the characters.

Dialogue is supposed to sound like conversation, but one analogy comes to mind in the relationship between pulque, which is the raw, newly fermented sap of the agave cactus and its upward distillation, tequila. Dialogue is the distillate of conversation. Characters use dialogue as a part of their action toolkit.

An ironic sidelight emerges when the focus shifts from fiction to nonfiction. There are numerous cases where the letters, diaries, journals, and other modes of conversation have found their way into biography and autobiography, but in larger measure, the dialogue in memoir and biography is not by any means a courtroom transcript, rather it is a drama-infused replication of the individual's intent.

Dialogue is intent in action or, if you will, dialogue is action. To take this proposition to the next level, the mot telling and memorable dialogue is about something other than what it seems to be, which is to say dialogue is about subtext. The more likely the possibility of some elephant being hidden under the throw rug of a given living room, the greater the possibility of incisive and memorable dialogue.

The less dialogue sounds like what it's surface pretext is about, the greater the lift it will give to the narrative momentum of a story. The more unspoken inferences can be drawn between the exchanges of dialogue, the more tense, suspenseful, and engaging the story.  

After Nora Helmer, by all accounts the protagonist of A Doll's House, makes the bank loan which gets her husband off the hook, she begins hearing her inner voices, questioning her and her behavior. These are important views of her inner life, the things she cannot bear to share with any other character in the play, which is of paramount significance because it lets us infer there is no one she can approach to discuss her inner and outer conflicts.

When Nora sees how the ending moments of the play are the only possible steps and course she can take, we will have inferred from this inner dialogue of hers that she has NO OTHER CHOICE than to do what, as the curtain falls, she does.

In a real sense, we root for or empathize with characters because we have early on inferred some of the buried elephants within their living room.

Saturday, December 31, 2016


A significant difference between the major characters, which is to say protagonist and antagonist, in the plot-based story and the character-based or -driven story can be summed up in the portmanteau word "backpack."

Protagonists in the plot-driven story are distinguished by their major goal, which resides outside their inner landscape. Thus a salesperson, struggling to meet a sales quota against the risk of being fired for underperformance, an aging athlete, struggling to achieve a permanent starting position on the team, against the risk of being sent "down" to the minor leagues; a homicide detective, nearing retirement, haunted by a particular unsolved case, against the risk of having to live out retirement with the knowledge of that failure; a psychiatrist, struggling to effect a depressed patient's "recovery," against the risk of that patient's eventual suicide.

All those examples can provide satisfactory outcome in the dramatic sense, and yet each in its own way is a cliche, dating at least as far back as the narratives of Horatio Alger and his rags-to-riches memes, but of course even farther down the dusty roads of history. There is nothing inherently "wrong" with such tropes; they are in large measure a part of the cultural heritage of hard work and individual determination being the sine qua non of civilized psyche.

The external goal resembles the joke patter of the comedian, where the pattern is the set-up--"A priest, a minister, and a rabbi walk into a bar," the introduction of the complication, then the payoff/surprise/punchline.  The payoff may indeed be funny, possibly hilarious. 

But there is nowhere to go afterward. The comedian needs a new set-up, immediately, or the audience will grow restive.  A plot-driven story may dazzle with its intricacies, its deft manipulations of the dramatic genome as it accelerates the risk to the narrator and causes the reader to fear, repeat, fear the eventual triumph of the antagonist.

Nevertheless, the plot-driven story, on close inspection, borders on, if not trespasses into cliche. The reader is in effect following such authors for the thrill of the trespass rather than the emotional impact of the story.

The character-driven story is no less goal oriented then the plot-driven narrative, nor is there any less appreciation of the thrill of the trespass. But, unlike the comic's need for a new set-up, or the plot-driven writer's need for a new, downward spiral of risk to the protagonist, another dimension presents itself--the inner goal. Character-driven stories become two or more parallel lines in simultaneous development where the plot-driven story limits itself to one orbit of momentum.

A protagonist in a character-driven story should have an external goal, otherwise there would be no story. Nevertheless, the protagonist also has an inner desire or goal, sometimes a goal buried so deeply within that the character is not consciously aware of it, seemingly fighting the awareness of it with each successive scene until--well, until Macbeth kills the king or Walter White kills his first antagonist, on his way toward the inevitable, explosive confrontation with  Gus Fring.

The evolution from plot-driven to character driven narrative can be traced in three novels you've been studying in recent months, written by an author who got his start with the plot-driven story. The novels are, As I Lay Dying, The Sound and The Fury, and Light in August,all by William Faulkner, wherein each allows you to see a cast of characters with outer and inner goals, each a particular journey along the cusp of cliche, with sudden, unanticipated lapses into an awareness of being doused with the chilly waters of recognition.

Friday, December 30, 2016

I See by Your Outfit That You Are a Cowboy

If a character is to have any lasting meaning for the reader, that character must have a well-defined comfort zone which the reader can see in place before it is threatened. The reader must then be able to eavesdrop when the character receives the threat.

By watching the character's response to the threat, the reader begins to invest in the character, initiating empathy if not outright sympathy. This investment is the result of a careful manipulation from the writer, who is using with words, images, and subtext the equivalent of notes, keys, and durations used by the composer of music.

Perhaps the reader has felt a similar threat as the character now experiencing the potential invasion. Even more to the point, perhaps the writer is aware of this dynamic and has contrived to exacerbate it. Perhaps--ah, perhaps the writer has gone so far as to show what the character had to overcome in the past to arrive at the comfort zone now under attack.

The reader may not have that very day won a military battle such as Macbeth did, not was given an in situ promotion by the king as Macbeth was, nor indeed witnessed three witches, making a remarkable prediction about him. But the reader has likely nourished some secret dream or agenda; perhaps even as in Macbeth's case, the hidden dream was buried within the safety deposit box of the subconscious. No?

Remember Cora? Who could forget the Cora from The Postman Always Rings Twice because Cora is such a splendid example of the dynamic. Remember how Cora, achingly attractive, had to settle for demeaning waitress jobs, allowing herself to be pawed and grabbed in Depression Era Los Angeles. Along came Nick, a good-natured older man, with an offer of marriage. 

Cora knew a life line when it was being thrown her way. Now, she is Mrs. Nick, and has achieved a comfort zone, but it is only a first- or second-floor comfort zone in Cora's high-rise hidden dreams. For the time being, she can put up with being Mrs. Nick, in a sense half-owner of the restaurant Nick owns; she can even put up with Nick. Until Frank Chambers arrives.  As they would say in the theater and film worlds, "Cue the threat."

In similar fashion, Cora is a nudge in the gut of comfort for Frank, as in how much of a threat to Frank's status quo comfort zone is the intense sexual chemistry he soon realizes when they are together. 

Another interesting comfort-zone chemistry involves Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth, who, prior to Mr. Macbeth's encounter with those three remarkable witches, were in the comfort zone of having their own manor, a certain comfortable status, and a place in the affections of the king.

With a slight tweak of the dramatic formula, you could call Macbeth a precursor if not a prequel to Breaking Bad, wherein Macbeth before the witches holds the same dramatic value as Walter White before his diagnosis with cancer. Macbeth strives toward his genie-out-of-the-bottle vision of himself as king. In order to get there, he murders a king and a best friend along the way. And isn't Walter White something to behold on his way to becoming Heisenberg?

Could you have said this any better, yourself?  Of course you could've, but for the moment, here it is, to ponder and apply to the narrative you've entitled I See by Your Outfit That You Are a Cowboy, a title that once again comes to you from the lyrics of a song, this time The Streets of Laredo, a lyric and title that came jumping out at you when one of your characters cautions your protagonist, "Stop being a goddamned cowboy when there's no rodeo."

Thursday, December 29, 2016

"Not Going to Warn You Again," She Warned

Like many of your generation, you became aware of repetition on a meaningful level when the time arose for you to commit to memory the so-called multiplication tables. 

Not going You can recall teachers who, in the act of presenting repetition to you in the context of an aid to memorization, referred to the meme of how the you-of-the-future will appreciate and understand the importance of what the you-in-the-now were about to undertake.

Experience may well be the best teacher, a truth to be expanded upon by pressing the repeat button; thus more experience becomes an even more superlative teacher. But such is the nature of repetition that doing over something successful the first time through is given short shrift.

To set the matter to rest, you're not sorry you committed the multiplication tables to memory, nor are you all that glad. If anything, you wish you'd not stopped with twelve, burning into memory the thirteen and fourteen because it now seems to you how you have more occasion to plumb the depths of a thirteen- or fourteen-times X than any of the lesser predecessors.

This could also imply another truth: had you taken your memorization beyond twelve, you might this very December day in 2016 have no irritation for the times in recent years when you had to rely on mathematics rather than memory.

You are in fact saddest about the things you repeat without deliberation, rather by accident, which means you have to go back to rewrite, rephrase, even rethink your way out of what you consider the clunky sound of an unwanted repetition. Nothing sounds more as though you'd fallen asleep during a composition session than unintentional repetition.

On the other hand, a well-orchestrated repetition of a word or phrase adds to the emphatic cadence of a sentence. You've no qualms about admitting as a personal,  primary goal in composition, the wish to convey a meaningful and accessible outcome when you offer fact, opinion, or argument.

Repetition becomes important to you in direct proportion to your growing awareness of the significance of every word in a story. Unnecessary words become metaphoric albatrosses, weighting down the dramatic effect, increasing the unwanted sense that the material before you in effect stops the story in order to describe.

The writer Junot Diaz has done some intriguing things with the use of footnotes in fiction. Lesser writers than he stay away from such variations in convention, but Diaz, in his most recent novel, has made them seem an integral part of the narrative, their typographical distance from the actual text to the contrary notwithstanding. His use was daring, but from his success, you could see how he knew when to take the risk.

Most other writers, yourself included, need to consider with care the temptations to deviate from conventional format, reminding themselves how the goal of fiction has evolved from a telling, descriptive mode to one where the reader is situated inside the story, where the story appears to be taking place around not only the narrator of the text but the reader of the text.

The right repetition enhances this interior emphasis; the wrong repetition--one that seems to be an oversight or moment of editorial laziness--reminds the reader of the fragile apparatus story is.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Status Symbols

In recent classes, you found yourself making a statement with the metaphoric equivalent of creating static electricity when sliding over the seat covers of an automobile, then creating a visible shard of static electricity when you reach for and touch something metallic.

The statement has to do with the absolute need of a scene to show tangible recognition to the need for the presence of power and/or status. In earlier times, you made a similar statement about the need for any given scene in any given story to cause the evocation of at least one emotion. During those earlier times, you were at least far enough along the trail of your own learning process to count suspense as an emotion.

You're well beyond such homilies and take-for-granted recognition in which a scene must, among other things, advance the story or in some way define the growth of one or more characters. You're well beyond to the point of noting the tremendous load the scene must carry in order to be successful, immersed in the awareness of all the basic elements or dramatic DNA traces necessary for a scene to qualify as a scene.

The difference between a scene and event is every bit as extraordinary as the difference between a protozoan and a human. While both are living organisms, the latter is exponentially more complex and intraconnected. An event may have one or two dimensions, a scene can reach the state of being an extended moibius strip, the Klein bottle, itself the embodiment of properties and conditions a simple, two-sided object such as a sheet of manuscript paper cannot express in physical form, but can serve as host for a physical description of the complexity.

Scenes in which more than one person appear have a built-in status, a notion you first heard in a valued political science course and a part of your undergraduate minor. "Whenever two or more persons gather," the instructor said, "a political condition arises." You snapped alert, notions of status and power whirling about in the interstices of your thought process. 

You recall spending your spare time over the next few days compiling a list of such bi-polar circumstances. Indeed, these are bi-polar circumstances, even among identical twins. In such cases, the status or class awareness may shift (all the better for story dynamics) as differing aspects of personality and ability assume prominence.

We read story to experience these shifts in status and power, following the shift with the same kind of excitement inherent in a close contest, election, or sporting event. Unbalanced status or power is always a splendid entry into a story; we form allegiances with the characters (example: Ivanhoe) rooting for one to gather the power or status to bring down the other, to restore in effect what may have been usurped.

Upset status has long been recognized as one of the major starting points for kind of story in which the goal is to show at least one character restoring enough self- and ethnic or national esteem to satisfy our inner scale of acceptable stasis.

Class, power, and status are manifest in every culture, thus such tropes as the wisdom or respect for one's elders, the notion that youth must be served, and a concept you first investigated in depth in a course in anthropology wherein the clash between generations. The young generation wants its inheritance in order to work its own epic successes and discoveries while at the same time the older generation understands how much status and power it loses after passing over the inheritance.

You are acute these days to individuals opening doors for you or seating you at the head of a table or serving you first. These activities are tributes and conventions of politeness. Although you have held doors open for countless others, referred to yet others as Sir or Ma'am, offered your seat or position to elders or those for whom you had a strong sense of respect, you neither sought such recognition for yourself not felt entirely comfortable when they were extended to you.

This sense of what you think of as status pluses and minuses had its beginning, so far as you can recall, before your move from Los Angeles to what appears to be your new permanent home, Santa Barbara, and your participation in the writers' baseball game, in season played weekly. On those times when there were not enough of your tribe present, you relied on "drafting" neighborhood kids, all too willing to join in.  Your memory takes you back then, to your late 30's, edging into fourth decade, and a youngster named Ronnie Gunderson.

On the day you have in mind, Gunderson was acquired for your side, with the thought to move George Bishop, generally as capable a second baseman as could be wanted, to shortstop, with young Gunderson at second.  There you are, in your customary center field, positioning yourself under a tall, lazy fly ball, waiting for it to drop into your glove, already aware of your next move, which would be to throw it to George Bishop, covering second, against the potential of the runner on first base thinking to advance himself to second after your catch.

"He's tagging up," Gunderson called, warning you in acceptable baseball dialogue of teamwork. But he didn't leave it at that. Gunderson had to add, "Sir," to his warning and the additional admonition, "Throw to second, sir."

You did indeed throw the ball you'd just caught on the fly, sending it over to George Bishop in time to send the base runner scurrying back to first base. After the final out of the inning, when you were trotting in toward the sidelines with Bishop, you couldn't help saying, "Little fucker's got to go."

"He calls everybody sir," Bishop said.

"No excuse," you said. "You come out here to play or get called sir?"

Bishop, whose editor you were, had an answer for that. "I come out here to play ball, grow a bit older, and resent those in our midst with no traces of arthritis."